Culture Crash - Scott Timberg

Culture Crash: An Interview with Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg

Considering both the human costs and the unintended consequences for America, culture writer and 21CM contributor Scott Timberg’s new book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, explores the very real repercussions for society if the people who create and support culture cannot stay in the middle class. Published by Yale University Press, the book has received superlative reviews from national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Times of London and New Republic. Culture Crash clearly speaks to the core of the 21CM readership and its experiences, and we wanted to know more.

Culture CrashEd: The main argument in the book seems to be “a broad-based class making its living in culture ensures a better society.”

Timberg: Yes, in the end, I think, culture is about the human connection to something deep and eternal. But it’s also about our connection to each other. Most of my deepest relationships to other people, going back to elementary school, have come from our shared commitment to or curiosity about rock bands, poets, filmmakers, composers, etc. I don’t think I’m unique in this – this kind of ardor goes back thousands of years and is not unique to the Western or developed world.

This is an unfashionable and retro thing to say, but the vast majority of what I know about what we used to call the human condition comes from culture – literature, music, theater, film, and so on. There’s nothing like it.

You quote Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, as saying that “a successful artist” is “essentially working class … who should have our respect, the same as a farmer.” You then go on to talk about the disconnect society has with artists being taken seriously as true professionals.

Working artists – whether animators, painters, novelists, classical musicians, indie rockers, etc. – tend to be somewhere between working class and middle class. Sometimes they move in between the two.

There’s been a distrust of the imagination and the people who dwell in it for almost all of human history; anti-intellectualism is also close to universal and goes way back. You can see some of this in Britain – the soul-killing pragmatism that says everything that matters is about money is clear in the Dickens novel Hard Times. That’s part of our tradition as well.

But this was all heightened by the way artists became collateral damage in the culture wars. I’m talking not just about the various fights over NEA funding that led to its later consolidation. The term “cultural elite” became a political short hand for seditious and dangerous – not real Americans. Those associations are still with us; they’ve seeped into our psychology.

Boston, Austin and Los Angeles are called out in the book as thriving artistically for a number of reasons. Are there common threads among these cities?

Well these are very different places in a lot of ways, especially if we consider that I look at the poetry scene in ’50s Boston, the visual art scene in ’60s L.A. and the cosmic-cowboy scene in ’70s Austin. What could those times and places and fields have in common?

So, among the things you see over and over are: strong institutions (including small ones), cheap places for artists to live and establish communal spaces, connecting figures (Willie Nelson, for instance) and day jobs related to the art form in question that allows artists to get their creative juices flowing even if they do their really personal work in the off hours. David Byrne suggests that free beer also helps.

Generally these places had a fertile blend of some kind of market capitalism with a nonprofit/university sector and some kind of government/state presence that made things possible but didn’t determine the shape of the art produced. It’s a tricky balance to get right, but when it works, the results can be powerful.

Some time is focused on the dichotomy between “strata” of artists, such as “starchitects,” and the working class or struggling artist. Hasn’t a kind of “class system,” for lack of a better term, based on talent and connections always existed, since art existed? Where the best make it and the rest, after a while, decide to become teachers or lawyers? Or is something else currently happening?

Culture has always been dependent on wealth or power; that’s especially true of something like opera or symphony orchestras or the design of cathedrals that require huge amounts of time, money and manpower.

And the superstar artist – and the beginning of a winner-take-all system for the arts – probably goes back at least to the Renaissance.

But here’s what’s changed: You might not be able to become Michelangelo, or even Virginia Woolf or John Adams, but you could work at a publishing house as an editor or at a record label as a publicist. You could push your love of Dinah Washington or Muddy Waters or Sonic Youth or Schubert’s quartets onto customers at a record store. You could write about painting or punk rock for a newspaper. You could become a non-blockbuster novelist – what’s called a midlist writer.

These jobs were never easy to get – it took me a college education, three years of freelance limbo with borderline poverty and an expensive master’s degree to get my first real job writing about culture for a small paper in Connecticut. But there were ways to break into that world, and if you were talented, hardworking and lucky, you could make a middle-class living. That’s what’s going away.

You might consider yourself an avocational artist, having a garage band. You also come from an artistically inclined family. Can you talk about how these influences affected your passion for this subject?

There’s no question that having parents with books on the shelves at home was important; my wife is a school librarian who works with kids who often have zero exposure to reading for pleasure in their families. In my case, my father had a lot of Dylan records and a fairly obscure Miles Davis live album; he rented Hitchcock and Hawks movies for us; my mom took us to see Ibsen plays and the like at Center Stage in Baltimore and to classical music once in a while.

But part of what made the difference for me is what I call the ecology or the arts infrastructure. We were about an hour from D.C., so we’d go to the National Gallery a lot to look at art. (I did not think of visual art as only something for the very rich; the Smithsonian was free.) Closer to home, a quixotic wild man near Annapolis decided to start a radio station called WHFS that played left-of-the-dial music – Prince, the L.A. Paisley underground, The Jam, Elvis Costello, weird Southern bands like R.E.M., etc. All stuff you would not hear on regular commercial radio. It gave me a sense of how broad the world of popular music was and how little of the best work was showing up in the mainstream. Finally, I went to a good public high school that had, alongside strong English teachers, a high school magazine that included both a “literary” and satire side. I wrote a short story for a $15 prize, later worked as an editor for the prose, ran a satire department and so on.

It’s also been fascinating to learn the guitar in a serious way; I’m studying jazz, so that means lots of theory and weird chord voicings. Maybe the best thing about it all is the indie-rock band I run out of my garage; we play songs by Neil Young, Wire, Velvet Underground, The Replacements, etc. We may finally be good enough to play bars and have a couple places in mind. But the fellowship and trying to nail a song and get a little better every week are their own rewards.

At the same time – let me be very clear about this because it connects with the central argument around culture in the age of the Internet – technology does democratize culture in a very superficial way. That is, my friends and I can record our version of a Big Star song, put it online, burn a disc for friends, etc. But believe me, you do not want a world in which it’s all bands like mine. You want a musical world (and by extension, a literary, graphic-arts world and so on) in which artists make a living at what they do. You want a world that supports the career of a John Coltrane or a Clash or a Richard Thompson or a János Starker or a Hillary Hahn or Elliott Smith. What the Silicon Valley disruption boys won’t admit: You don’t want a culture where it’s always amateur hour.

Given you’ve spent quite a bit of time researching the creative class’ current state, what is your ideal scenario for this endangered group, the one critical thing that needs to happen to stave off disaster?

Let me cheat a bit and offer two things. Much of my book is about the economics of culture. The creative class lives – mostly – within the middle class, a group that has been getting slammed for four decades now. As the middle class struggles and shrinks, growing less stable, with wealth and median wages declining, as an uber-class of financiers and tech-corporate savants rises on one side and poverty grows and deepens on the other, things will not end well. So I listen very closely to Elizabeth Warren and Paul Krugman and Robert Reich about how to restore the middle class. By the standards of political discourse in the U.S. that probably makes me a radical. But even the pope and The Economist magazine are concerned about this mess.

Second, and just as important: Individual members of the creative class cannot win these battles on their own. It’s crucial that they connect with each other in a real way. I don’t mean Facebook, but a group like Freelancers Union or the recently formed Content Creators Coalition, which aims to consolidate writers, musicians, photographers, etc. across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and across various genres, and to have some influence on government policy.

Some people who haven’t read my book call it “gloomy,” which is funny. I don’t want people to be depressed; I want them to wake the hell up. We’ve been asleep too long. If we want to have a broad and sustainable culture in the Anglo-American world, we will face up to some things, stop lying to ourselves and try to plot a way forward. That’s all I ask.

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1 Response

  1. Abigail Martin says:

    Coming from Cincinnati, a big arts city, I have witnessed the disappearance of a cultural class with my own eyes. My idols in the arts, the men and women I looked up to throughout my childhood and adolescence, I now know to be struggling to make ends meet–working three jobs on top of doing freelance work wherever they can get it. Many of them, single and saving every penny, can barely be called middle class. Going into the arts today as a college student is no longer simply a commitment to an unsure future. It is a commitment to a most likely poor one, and that is a scary commitment to ask college students to make, even worse if they don’t realize they are making it. The “starving artist” is no longer a phenomenon unique to expensive New York City streets; it is everywhere. For all but the lucky few, they will have three options: hit it big, switch careers, or struggle every day to make ends meet. Perhaps, however, our hope lies in that middle category: the people who wanted to be artists but switched, for one reason or another. Those are the people who have the chance to change audiences, to raise children with an appreciation for the arts and bring friends who have never experienced them into the fold of art-lovers. It is this support for the art of our friends that we, as individuals in an artistic community, can give of freely to give the cultural class a hope of surviving.

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